A ‘good pierogi’ story

Chef Krem Miskevich talks about the history and the love behind Polish pierogi.

0
1018
Ingredients for sweet blueberry pierogies. —Anna Brody

I recently wondered, what sets Polish pierogi apart? Typically thoughtful, Krem Miskevich, a talented chef and pierogi aficionado, responded:

Pierogi are not vareniki, I’ve always said that but when I really think about it, it isn’t so easy to isolate the differences among Eastern European dumplings. Maybe, I just want Poland’s pierogi to be unique because I love them. Speaking for myself, my dough never contains egg — I want it light and silky — and my pierogi are always filled with what is seasonally at its peak, potatoes and cheese sometimes, but just as often local meat, fresh berries, or when I have them, I braise young carrots. This is something I learned growing up. In my experience, the thing that is most essential to our food is that each dish is cooked and eaten as a tribute to what is available. In Poland, that means we never eat asparagus but for one month a year, same with mushrooms and strawberries — though sometimes they run a bit longer. We wait eagerly for each fruit and vegetable to ripen (and anticipate that the cooking will change as the season progresses and the ingredient matures). We eat what is perfect then move on, savoring as we go. Pierogi, filled with what we’ve grown or gathered, are at heart humble, like a lot of Polish food. That said, when made well, they are extraordinary because every tasty bite connects us both to our history and a specific place and time.

I first encountered Krem at a pop-up at State Road restaurant in 2021. Krem cooked a delicious progression of dishes using Island ingredients, all inspired by the food they ate growing up in Poland. The dinner was organized by Elana Carlson (founder of Fantyze Bagels) who’d met Krem at Kismet, the Los Angeles restaurant where Krem worked as sous chef.

Krem’s path to a summer on Martha’s Vineyard was not the usual one. Born in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a month after Lech Walesa was elected in the country’s first free election, Krem grew up in Warsaw. Krem’s father, a Russian raised in the U.S. (his parents immigrated), left before Krem was two.

Krem remembers:

Chef Krem with finished pierogis. —Anna Brody

I was popular as a teenager and definitely liked to have fun. I was not much interested in studying, and my mom was stretched thin in those years. I guess I was a lot. I’d never had any contact with my father but she reached out to him (he was living in Russia). He came to Warsaw, offered me an American passport and invited me to LA to stay with my grandparents. I was 17, eager for a change and to meet the rest of my family, so I got on a plane.

When I got to California, I enrolled in Beverly Hills High. Honestly, it was tough. I did not yet have the words to express my identity but I knew I had little or nothing in common with most of the kids around me. They made it clear they felt the same. I hung on for three months then went back home to finish high school.

I returned to LA planning to enroll in film school. I rethought things when a friend suggested I’d be better off becoming a chef. I was surprised because I didn’t cook. I have very strong food memories, but I never spent time in the kitchen (since then I’ve been told that I’d hop up whenever somebody in our group was hungry — I have no recollection, though I have so much energy I imagine it’s true). To make a long story short, I wound up enrolling in the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Los Angeles. I probably could have saved money by wriggling my way into a restaurant job but, as things turned out, I got a lot from my final “stage” at Fiskebaren in Copenhagen and I found my degree was respected and helpful when I returned to Poland.

After graduation I started work in Warsaw at a restaurant connected to a nightclub. It was a casual place, with a small staff and the menu changed every day. I didn’t have much experience but I kept moving, which meant, in that experimental hothouse, I got to try things. It was crazy but I loved it. I’d cook, then end the night dancing to my favorite DJs. Looking back, it was probably the least healthy place I’ve ever cooked, but I learned in that creative chaos.

I left after about a year and went on to cook in a couple of other kitchens in the city. I was good at my work, but back then, my job wasn’t what guided me. When my girlfriend suggested we move to Barcelona, I was ready to go.

I wound up at Mé. The chef was from Vietnam. He was a war refugee who was settled in Texas. He spent time in New Orleans and worked for Jose Andrés who sent him to Barcelona. He decided to stay in Spain and bring it all together — we served Vietnamese, Cajun, Catalan food — a wild mix but it worked.

Three years later, when Mé shut, I felt the loss, so I headed home. I was in Warsaw regrouping when my brother called asking me to help him develop an ice cream brand. I didn’t hesitate. It took years, but my brother’s ice cream, Moloko, is now available on the West Coast (it is terrific). I moved back to California and worked with him as long as I could, but didn’t stay the course; my shrinking bank account forced me to find regular income.

I took a position at Jon & Vinny’s, working all the stations, filling in as needed. Because pasta was the busiest, I spent the most time there, so much so that I started to get sick (I still have trouble with processed gluten — luckily I can work with high quality unbleached flour). That’s where things stood when I heard Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer were going to lead a team cooking market-driven food with Jewish/Middle Eastern flavors. At Kismet, a wonderful restaurant where I spent three and a half years, I realized food wasn’t just my job, it is my life.

Making sweet pierogies. —Anna Brody

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Kismet had to shift; it became a grocery selling fresh and prepared food. It was time to try my own thing. I made pierogi, froze them and sold them from my kitchen. I came up with a name (Good Pierogi), a friend helped with graphics and I was off and running. All formed by hand, my first run of 50 bags sold out immediately. It was grueling, but I realized I was doing what I truly wanted to do.

I heard about Martha’s Vineyard from Elana, she worked at Kismet “off-season.” In 2021, I decided to check it out. I found a summer job as a private chef, did pop-ups, helped with events and sold pierogi on the side. The Island was not exactly what I expected. It’s beautiful and the beaches are great, but it was quickly clear it was more than that. That July and August I was not only busy, I made true and deep connections. While there is no tradition of Polish food, the highly seasonal way I grew up eating and cooking myself, fit-in here. It might seem odd to say, but I think my home shares a sensibility with the cooking traditions on this Island. There is an appreciation of the simple dishes of working people, made with freshly gathered products.

Last summer I returned, working as the chef at Fantzye. Over the winter I made my pierogi, sold them at farmers’ markets and cooked dinners, offering food from my Polish point of view, in Tucson (I’ve found a new home there). This year I’ll be back, cooking dinner and snacks at Dock Street Diner in Edgartown every Tuesday starting July 11, serving my favorite dishes made with local ingredients from menus that will change weekly. Expect my hand-cut local beef (or lamb) tartar, pickled fish, and, of course, you will always find pierogi.

A pierogi primer 

Krem forming and sealing pierogis. —Anna Brody

A taste for pierogi is thought to have spread west from China. Legend has it that the beloved dumpling was brought from Kyiv by Hyacinth of Poland, a Dominican monk in the 13th century. The story goes that Hyacinth used pierogi to feed the needy. By 1682, pierogi had become popular with the aristocracy, the first Polish cookbook includes a recipe for pierogi made with a fine dough stuffed with veal kidneys. Over the next centuries, pierogi came to be associated with celebrations, each holiday with a special variety. The popularity of pierogi has grown and spread in Poland ever since. In lean times, people filled theirs with what they had — potatoes, groats, buckwheat, or local fruit. As Krem says, today’s fillings are dictated by the cook, season and occasion.

As is typical, Krem makes both savory meat and vegetable pierogi and also makes sweet ones. The same dough (see recipe) is used for all. Krem either simmers pierogi in gently boiling water then serves them, or goes on to sauté them. In Poland they use clarified butter for frying but a mixture of oil and butter will work just fine.

Pierogi freeze well. When that’s the plan, Krem recommends blanching the filled dumplings in boiling water for 30 seconds, transferring them to an oiled baking sheet (or plate) with a slotted spoon, then turning them over after 30 seconds so both sides cool evenly. Once the pierogi stop steaming, freeze them as they are, then transfer them to a freezer bag. They will keep for at least 3 months. To serve, simply drop the frozen pierogi in boiling water, allow them to float, then cook them for an additional 1½ to 2 minutes.

Pierogi Dough

Makes enough for about 30 pierogi

Delicate is the best way to describe the dough, which is the secret to Krem’s ethereal pierogi. To get this result, avoid flour with too much protein and be careful not to handle the dough more than necessary or you will activate the gluten. When available, Krem prefers to use locally grown and milled flour, but otherwise finds King Arthur all-purpose works well.

¾ cup plus 1 ½ Tbsp. water
*1 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. plus ½ tsp. neutral oil such as canola (or melted butter) 
400 to 450 grams (2 ½ to 3 cups) high quality all-purpose flour

Heat the water so it is too hot to hold your finger in for more than a second. Put the water in a bowl and mix in the salt then the oil (or melted butter). Stir in 2 ½ cups of the flour, mixing until combined. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and knead just enough so the dough can be formed into a smooth ball, adding more flour if it is sticky. (Be warned, the dough may still be hot when you begin to work it.)

Form the dough into a ball and cover it with a clean kitchen towel and set it aside to rest for at least 15 minutes (or wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze it for at least 3 months — bring the dough to room temperature before proceeding).

*If you use Morton kosher salt, use 1 ½ tsp., it is ground differently than Diamond Crystal.

Paprika-Braised Lamb Pierogi

Makes about 30

You can use ground lamb (easy to find) or mutton (more flavorful and available from local farms) for this filling. Either way, Krem recommends using three types of high quality paprika: sweet, smoked, and Hungarian — which has a rich taste with both sweet and smoky notes. The goal is interplay between the flavors of the different dried peppers. You can omit the Hungarian paprika if it proves hard to find, then use 1 ½ Tbsp. of sweet and 2 tsp. smoked.

2 Tbsp. neutral oil, such as canola
1 pound ground lamb (or mutton)
*1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp. Hungarian paprika
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
1 ½ tsp. smoked paprika
1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper 
1 bay leaf
1 quart stock — beef, chicken, or vegetable stock (water will also suffice)
1 recipe pierogi dough
Melted butter seasoned with vinegar or sour cream for serving
Chopped parsley for serving

Heat the oil in a large skillet or a Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the lamb and salt. Brown the lamb, breaking up the clumps of meat with a wooden spoon as you go, and turning it over in the pan so it colors evenly, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked lamb to a bowl. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions and garlic to the fat in the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the paprikas, black pepper, and bay leaf, mix well and let fry until the mixture is fragrant, 2 minutes or so, then add the stock and lamb. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer the filling, partially covered, stirring occasionally, and adding a little water if the meat looks dry. Cook the filling until the lamb is fully tender, the flavors blend and the liquid has reduced and formed a nicely thick gravy, about 2 hours. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt if necessary. Chill the filling (it can be refrigerated for up to 3 days).

Roll out the pierogi dough on a lightly floured surface (or use a pasta machine). You want it less than ⅛-inch thick (leave it a little thicker if you plan to freeze your dumplings — see box). Using a 3¼-inch cutter or a standard-sized glass, cut the dough into about 30 rounds. If you like a thin wrapper (and are not freezing your pierogi) roll each round out just a touch more. Spoon a little filling in the center of each round, then, working one at a time, fold the dough around the filling, then carefully and firmly press the edges together, making sure the edges are no thicker than the rest of the wrapper.

Immediately before serving, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Working in batches (to avoid crowding the pot) drop pierogi into the water. Simmer the dumplings until the dough is cooked through, the filling heated and they float, about 3 minutes. Transfer the pierogi to an oiled baking sheet; Reserve in a warm place and repeat, cooking the remaining dumplings.

Serve the pierogi warm, topped with melted butter seasoned with vinegar then garnished with chopped parsley; or serve pierogi with sour cream. (Note: for fried pierogi, boil the dumplings as described then brown them in a skillet in clarified butter or a mix of oil and butter.)

Pierogi topped with brown butter. —Anna Brody

Perfect Blueberry Pierogi

Makes about 30

Krem doesn’t add sugar to the blueberries in this, the ultimate summertime pierogi filling, relying instead on the natural sweetness of berries. Serve the pierogi topped with sour cream or browned butter. Either way finish with a sprinkle of sugar: crystalized, brown or granulated. If you have access to black currants, they make a sensational alternative.

About 1 ½ pints blueberries
1 recipe pierogi dough
Browned butter or sour cream for serving
Sugar for serving

Pick through the blueberries.

Roll out the pierogi dough on a lightly floured surface (or use a pasta machine). You want it less than ⅛-inch thick (leave it a little thicker if you plan to freeze your dumplings — see box). Using a 3¼-inch cutter or a standard-sized glass, cut the dough into about 30 rounds. If you like a thin wrapper (and are not freezing your pierogi) roll each round out just a touch more. Place berries in the center of each round, then, working one at a time, fold the dough over the berries, then carefully and firmly press the edges together, making sure the edges are no thicker than the rest of the wrapper.

Immediately before serving, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Working in batches (to avoid crowding the pot), drop pierogi into the water and simmer until the dough is cooked, the berries soft and the pierogi float, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked dumplings to an oiled baking sheet; Reserve them in a warm place and repeat, cooking the remaining dumplings.

Serve the pierogi topped with browned butter or sour cream and your choice of crystalized, brown or white sugar.